Water Based Screen Printing

There’s more to screen printing T-shirts than having a good idea and picking the best colors. You have to think about T-shirt style and materials, for example. Do you prefer a soft, thick 100 percent cotton shirt or something in the hybrid way? And that’s only the beginning.

Selecting the right screen-printing ink can be a challenge. You might have to ask yourself questions about your environmental stance, not to mention whether you prefer a “soft hand” feel to a stiffer touch. Essentially, in inks, you have two choices: plastisol or water-based. They both have their pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, plastisol inks give you:

• Lots of versatility. You can print on just about anything because the ink sits on top of the material and sticks to it.

• Cheaper. Plastisol inks took the screen printing industry by storm about 70 years ago because it didn’t cost as much. It’s popularity hasn’t dropped off.

• You get great color with plastisols, even on dark garments. All it takes is laying down more layers of ink.

In the minus column, plastisols:

• Plastisols are not particularly environment-friendly. An ingredient is polyvinyl chloride, which is a cancer-causing substance that can escape into the environment. Cleaning up the ink requires harsh solvents.

• The hand feel of plastisol can be off-putting. The ink tends to be stiff, and it can crack and peel away because it lies on the fabric rather than being integrated into it.

The positives for standard water-based inks include:

• High score on eco-friendliness. The best water-based inks contain no nasty chemicals, and they clean up using enzymes instead of more dangerous chemicals

• Great feel. If you’re looking for a “soft hand,” printing with water-based ink is the way to go. The ink integrates with the fabric so there’s no brittleness or stiffness.

On the negative side:

• You can’t print on just anything. The best fabric to print with water-based ink is 100 percent cotton. There has been some success with others, but you should consult your screen printer.

• Artwork has to be created specifically for water-based inks. It’s best to use textures and loose, sketchy designs to cover printing irregularities

• Printing on dark fabrics is problematic. You can’t just put on another layer of ink to make the image show up.

But don’t despair if you’re favorite color is black. I you’re a fan of the environment and want to do what you can to protect it, there is a water-based solution: water-based discharge screen printing ink. Like standard water-based inks, discharge inks don’t have the damaging chemicals found in plastisols or used to clean them up.

Here’s how it works. A substance called an activator releases the dye from the fabric so the ink color can show up.

Sound simple? It’s not. You need special tools and somebody with the skills to know how to use them. But the results can be very rewarding.